The city is taking the next steps in exploring the feasibility of a municipally-sponsored Internet service.
On Monday night, council voted 4 to 3 to hire CTC Technology and Energy, a Maryland-based independent communications and IT engineering consulting firm that specializes in planning, design and implementation of communications infrastructure and networks, to determine viable service options, designs and cost projections for network deployment in Newark.
The study, which will cost the city $69,000, was opposed by Councilmen Rob Gifford, Mark Morehead and Luke Chapman.
The city’s interest in a municipally-sponsored Internet service was sparked by a few residents who spoke up at a previous council meeting, but staff and council wanted to gauge public support for the concept before moving forward and held a public workshop with CTC in October.
During the meeting, CTC officials outlined a preliminary plan for a feasibility study and said that the city itself needs broadband not only for Internet but for public safety, monitoring/SCADA, surveillance, parking meters, cloud applications, code enforcement, GIS data and future Smart City technology.
Last year, the city installed smart water and electric meters that relay usage information over a new wireless Internet network called a Wi-Fi mesh, but it is not designed to service thousands of people and doesn’t expand across the city.
Newark’s IT department has talked about providing free Wi-Fi hotspots along Main Street in the past, but IT Manager Josh Brechbuehl said city-run broadband could allow the city to act as a wholesaler by providing high-speed Internet access to residents as a utility similar to water and electric.
At the request of council, CTC revamped the original proposal presented in October, which would have cost $43,000, and submitted a new plan Monday night that Brechbuehl said aims to accomplish four new tasks: develop high-level technical models and cost estimates, collaborate with representatives of the University of Delaware, prepare financial analysis and prepare a final report and implementation schedule.
He said the study will explore the possibility of connecting UD buildings to the grid if the city decides to build it.
“Maybe we share that fiber and the cost of installation for that fiber,” he added.
Though the new study is $26,000 more than what was originally discussed in October, Brechbuehl said the money is available from the 2016 Legislative Department’s Legal/Consulting Services budget.
“Unfortunately, the cost has gone up because of the extra detail provided,” Brechbuehl said.
Councilwoman Marge Hadden, who works for the university, suggested UD chip in financially.
“I don’t know that they are looking to help fund this study,” Brechbuehl responded, although he added the university has expressed interest in helping with the research and exploring a possible partnership in the future.
Gifford said that when it comes to Internet providers, large companies like Comcast and Verizon can afford to offer low prices for their services and he is concerned about spending $69,000 on a study just to learn that Newark won’t be able to compete.
“There’s no way we can be cost-competitive for residential service, or it’s going to be the same,” he said.
Morehead was also skeptical. He said he isn’t sure municipal broadband will be a real revenue generator for the city because the city won’t be able to take customers away from Comcast and Verizon, companies that “do this for a living.”
“We don’t do this for a living,” Morehead said.
Chapman also felt nervous about Newark “entering into the business of offering this utility,” but admitted he was hesitant to pass up the opportunity all together.
Hadden urged the board to consider the benefits of moving forward with the feasibility study, even if it turns out to be merely educational. She said municipally-sponsored broadband could make Newark more desirable for future residents and businesses, and the city would be potentially using taxpayers’ money to install the network, so it’s important to find out if the investment is going to be worth it.
“$69,000 is a big investment, but it’s an investment in the community,” Hadden said.
The city of Newark will enter into a contract with CTC Technology and Energy in order to conduct a feasibility study, the findings of which will be presented to council at a later date.